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From Public Life to Private Business

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David S. Hilzenrath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 31, 2006; 1:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer David S. Hilzenrath was online to discuss former Defense secretary William S. Cohen. Hilzenrath examined Cohen's transition from public life to private business in an article Sunday.

A transcript follows.

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Arlington, VA: Mr. Hilzenrath:

What was the point of your story? I read it expecting some smoking gun, and there wasn't one - just cheap insinuations from the usual suspects like POGO whose business it is to insinuate. If you don't think that former government officials deserve to make money after they leave public service, then come out and say it, rather than painting around the corners.

David S. Hilzenrath: I see it as a story about the way Washington works.

It's not my role to say whether or not former public officials should make money from the knowledge and relationships they developed in government. However, that's what many former officials do, and some citizens may want to know about it.

The executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, Danielle Brian, was not insinuating. She was making broad points about the potential implications of career paths such as Secretary Cohen's. If a government official plans to become a consultant to industry, she said, it could give the official an incentive to be friendly with industry.

Unlike words and actions, private motivations are hard to determine. Let me repeat Secretary Cohen's words. He said he carried out his government duties "without any consideration of future gain."

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Burke, VA: Regarding your story on former SECDEF Cohen and his transition to business/commercial life following his time in government, I couldn't figure out if you were trying to have us feel sorry for him--"his . . . disclosure from listen tens of thousands of dollars of charge-account debts with rates as high as about 25%"-- or were you saying that he sold himself afterwards to give him the lifestyle his wife and he had always wanted.

Most of all, I was disappointed in the 'woe is me' of having to live on a government salary side of the story. What does that say about all the capable, hard-working government employees and military who some how find a way to prosper, save, buy a comfortable (but not excessive) house, send kids to college, save for retirement, take care of aging parents, etc. etc. You quote him as saying his financial condition was "probably typical of those who remained honest in public service." What does that say to government employees when the top of the food chain is saying he can't make it, even with a salary probably greatly in excess of theirs?

David S. Hilzenrath: I was trying to tell the story. Among other things, I was trying to capture a sense of the pressures and tradeoffs that may accompany a career spent in government service. I was not trying to make either of the points you mentioned. As with most stories, individual readers may react differently.

In my interview with Secretary Cohen, I was the one who raised the topic of his financial condition after three decades in government. He explained that he had chosen to stay in public service despite the financial tradeoffs.

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Philadelphia, PA: The revolving door between government and business creates an atmosphere of protection of businesses by government, in my opinion. Even if no offer is made, government employees know these jobs will be out there when their service is done, and I believe it makes them less aggressive to take actions that might help the public yet harm the business. While it is sad to see this with Secretary Cohen, is there any evidence that any of this was illegal, or that any offers were indicated would be available to him while he was in office?

David S. Hilzenrath: The story does not allege any illegality.

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Rockville MD: Initially I thought your intent was to present the facts on the transition of one public official. As I read further, I would like to know if you planned to intimidate or incriminate?

David S. Hilzenrath: Your initial thought was correct.

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Arlington, VA: Your article is full of innuendo but few objective facts to support the implication that Former Secretary Cohen has done something wrong by using his experience and contacts on behalf of clients. The only information that appears to have been conveyed is that Secretary Cohen has helped clients and that the article is devoid of any instance of impropriety. In other words, the facts run contrary to the innuendo. So, why such a negative approach to a man who dedicated so many years to public service honestly and ethically and is now representing private sector clients in a legal manner?

David S. Hilzenrath: It's not our place to judge whether there's anything wrong with the services Secretary Cohen performs for clients. You can form your own opinion.

Some of the people quoted in the story pointed to issues of potential concern.

We set out to report on the business of the Cohen Group, the intersection of government and business in Washington, and one official's transition from the former to the latter.

As a general matter, something doesn't have to be illegal to be newsworthy or interesting.

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San Francisco, California: Your profile of Secretary Cohen's newfound wealth oddly omitted another SecDef to find even greater wealth in the private sector, the current Vice President. Although the article you wrote mentioned Kissinger, Albright, and Carlucci, it would seem the most telling comparison of a SecDef's accumulation of new wealth after leaving the office would be with Richard B. Cheney. Is there a reason the article did not make this comparison?

David S. Hilzenrath: The people mentioned in the story were meant to serve as examples of a Washington paradigm.

Much has been written about the Vice President's time in the private sector. His service as chief executive of Halliburton has less in common with Secretary Cohen's post-government career than the examples cited.

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Tom from Chantilly, VA: This was a very poor case of yellow journalism. Why do you make numerous allegations by insinuation without any facts whatsoever to make the reader conclude Bill Cohen did anything illegal, immoral or for personal gain. Was your lengthy passage on his home purchase in McLean an attempt to suggest Bill Cohen was acting like Duke Cunningham? In quoting Paul Light and the other academic, it appears that you fudged their answers to give the suggestion of potential impropriety. Did you? Also, why did you lead the article with the point that Bill Cohen had credit card debt? Are you asserting (again without fact) that he was willing to compromise his professional integrity to pay off bills? Finally, I am curious as to whether the Post editorial board debated killing this story before it ran? It was so below the standard readers come to expect from one of the nation's premier newspapers?

David S. Hilzenrath: I think I've covered this, but I'm happy to share your comment with our readers.

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DC: Enjoyed the story, but I was struck again and again with a sense of "was it ever thus" as I read through it.

Question: Aren't there umpteen examples of this sort of cashing out and why is the Post just now exposing this now-very-common behavior?

Further, and a bit broader, are the temptations of DC power and money such that former members of Congress or admin officials can't just go home after they leave gov't service?

This bipartisan affliction (Clinton, Dole, Gingrich, Daschle) seems to have really worsened of late (ironically, while the amount of DC bashing has also been on the upswing)

Seems now that the real news is when these types actually do go home. Perhaps that can be your next big story -- those who were at the pinnacle of political power and just walked away from it all to go home.

David S. Hilzenrath: The paradigm we describe is a longstanding feature of business in Washington. We've written about it before, and we may write about it again.

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Annandale, VA: Your article only serves to once again undermine the dignity and selflessness with which many individuals enter in public service. They're scrutinized getting into it, during their service, and now after they leave office. After years of dedicated public service in both the Congress and as Secretary of Defense, Bill Cohen should be praised for his service not maligned for whom he represents as a private citizen.

Bill Cohen was an exemplary Senator who went against his party and served as the Secretary of Defense under a democratic president. It took guts, and it would be wonderful to see him re-enter the electoral politics in the 2008 election. Either party should be pleased to invite him into their tent.

But to the point of your article, Washington is full of revolving doors. Cohen, like others before him did not earn a hefty salary as a member of Congress or as the Secretary of Defense. (I believe Colin Powell bluntly stated when he left the Joint Chief of Staff position that he wanted to earn more money than the government salary he'd been on for so many years). Had your research found that Cohen had not run his shop reputably and met the requirements set forth in law, then you would have had an article worth reporting. Unfortunately, you did not and the result was a piece that maligned the reputation of an individual who should be a role model to many.

David S. Hilzenrath: Thank you for participating in the discussion.

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Middletown, NY: Previous questioners have me puzzled- if all facts correct, classic conflict of interest issues. No?

David S. Hilzenrath: Readers can form their own opinions.

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Bethesda, MD: David, thank you for the well researched picture of how Washington works. I found it fascinating. Those of us who spent much of our careers in government before leaving for the private sector can relate (on a much smaller scale).

Did you get a sense of how Secretary Cohen is adjusting to his new life? Do you think he misses the action that came with being a Senator/SecDef rather than just one more highly paid Washington supplicant who has to patiently wait to see people who once would jump when he calls?

I get the sense that if he could, he'd go back - credit card debt and all.

David S. Hilzenrath: As Secretary Cohen said, he thrives on competition.

Nonetheless, as the story says, he had decided not to seek a fourth term in the Senate before President Clinton nominated him to be defense secretary.

Thank you for tuning in and sharing your comments.

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washingtonpost.com: That's all the time we have today. Thanks for joining us.

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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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